A new study conducted by Yale University has found that the public apathy circling the issue of climate change has very little to do with one’s scientific literacy, and a lot to do with the existing cultural or political group a person already finds themselves within.
“The aim of the study was to test two hypotheses,” said Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School and a member of the study team. “The first attributes political controversy over climate change to the public’s limited ability to comprehend science, and the second, to opposing sets of cultural values. The findings supported the second hypothesis and not the first.”‘
According to Yale, “‘Cultural cognition’ is the term used to describe the process by which individuals’ group values shape their perceptions of societal risks. It refers to the unconscious tendency of people to fit evidence of risk to positions that predominate in groups to which they belong.”
The results of the study — funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted by researchers associated with the Cultural Cognition Program at Yale Law School — were consistent with studies done previously showing that individuals with more egalitarian values disagree sharply with individuals who have more individualistic ones on the risks associated with nuclear power, gun possession, and the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine for school girls.
This study, which surveyed a representative sample of 1500 U.S. adults, measured “science literacy” using a test developed by the NSF and measured numeracy, a person’s ability to understand quantitative information.
“In effect,” Kahan said, “ordinary members of the public credit or dismiss scientific information on disputed issues based on whether the information strengthens or weakens their ties to others who share their values. At least among ordinary members of the public, individuals with higher science comprehension are even better at fitting the evidence to their group commitments.”
Researcher Ellen Peters of Ohio State University said that people who are higher in numeracy and science literacy usually make better decisions in complex technical situations, but the study clearly casts doubt on the notion that the more you understand science and math, the better decisions you’ll make in complex and technical situations affecting society. “What this study shows is that people with high science and math comprehension can think their way to conclusions that are better for them as individuals but are not necessarily better for society.”
According to Kahan, the study suggests the need for science communication strategies that reflect a more sophisticated understanding of cultural values.
“More information can help solve the climate change conflict,” Kahan said, “but that information has to do more than communicate the scientific evidence. It also has to create a climate of deliberations in which no group perceives that accepting any piece of evidence is akin to betrayal of their cultural group.”
Because, that shouldn’t be difficult at all.